Golden, Garnet and Amber: Roussillon’s Powerful, Historic Fortified Wines
In a small corner of southwest France, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the border of Spain and a small mountain range, there sits a quiet yet mighty winemaking area called Roussillon. Wines have been made here for millennia. Centuries ago, knights from many countries established hilltop castles here, fought battles over land and religion, and departed from these shores for pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
For over 500 years, Roussillon has been known for its abundant fortified sweet wines, bursting with concentration and flavor. The wines are made with both red and white grapes, and they are only slightly higher in alcohol than table wines. They are made to last, often as much as 50 years. This wine category is called Vin Doux Naturel in French, which is easily abbreviated to VDN.
The aromas and flavors of these wines have elements of preserved fruits like apricots, raisins and figs, along with tea and leather and wood and berries; white wines can also have floral elements with honey and bright dried fruits. Notes of aromatic baking spices, cocoa and toffee are also found in these wines.
These wines are lovely with dessert – or even as dessert -- sipped chilled at around 16-18 degrees C (60-65 degrees F). Because VDNs do not taste so sweet, some people are pairing them with appetizers of meats and cheeses (not seafood). In that case, the wines could be a served a couple degrees warmer.
While Roussillon winemakers are now producing red table wines that show power and grace as well as modern white wines with structure, they are also committed to preserving their regional heritage: robust, specially-aged, fortified sweet wines. Recently, Asian palates have taken to Roussillon’s wines and China currently represents 15% of Roussillon’s exports. By far the majority is red wine, but as awareness of the region’s uniquely-aged sweet wines grows, these exports are increasing as well.
For centuries, the winemakers of Roussillon produced about 80% sweet, fortified wines and 20% table wines; recently the proportions have nearly been reversed. It has taken only a few decades to accomplish this 180-degree turnaround. While applauding the nimbleness of the Roussillon winemakers in adjusting to the new global marketplace, I do find it distressing that their sweet wine production has declined so precipitously. This may mean that comparatively few people will become familiar with the excellent fortified wines of Banyuls and Rivesaltes and Maury. Luckily, there is still a tradition of enjoying these sweet excellent wines for holidays and special occasions. Especially for birthdays, as older vintages of these wines are readily available – wines from the 1980s, 1970s, even 1960s.
HOW THE WINES ARE MADE
Fortifying wine means that a neutral spirit (an unaged alcohol distillate) is added to the wine at some point in the winemaking process. In Roussillon, fortification occurs before the wines have been fermented completely dry. The wines retain some of their natural grape sweetness, which is where the name comes from: Vins Doux Naturel, or “Natural Sweet Wines.” The name can be confusing when you consider that the wines are fortified, not “naturally fermented.” But in this case the word “Naturel” [“natural” in English] refers to retaining the grapes’ natural sweetness, not the winemaking process.
The fortification process is also used in the production of well-known wines such as Port and Sherry, Cognac and Armagnac. In fact the originator of fortified wines came from this area, hundreds of years ago. In modern times, his name is given as Arnaud de Villeneuve -- though there are various spellings of his name throughout history, in different languages and geographic areas. He was a doctor in who lived during the Middle Ages, (approximately 1240 to 1311 AD) and was known to have revived a king by giving him a fortified wine. This glorious example is cited as the beginning of the popularization of fortified wines.
Fortifying wine makes wine stronger, so it is able to withstand longer ageing and longer voyages for export. It is also higher in alcohol, which makes it taste “stronger.” However, the VDNs are that not much higher in alcohol than regular table wines; most VDNs are just above 15 degrees alcohol (though some are a few degrees higher).
GEOGRAPHY and CLIMATE
To understand these wines, it also helps to know a bit about the geography and history of the land. Roussillon is part of the larger, and more well-known “Languedoc-Roussillon” wine region. This categorization did not help the wineries of Roussillon in the recent past because during the late 20th century, the Languedoc developed a reputation for mass-produced, less expensive wines.
Roussillon itself is a relatively small area, almost the shape of a half-circle, surrounded by mountains at the circle’s edge, near the border of Spain. In fact, Barcelona, Spain is only about an hour by train from Roussillon’s main city of Perpignan.
The land itself shows a series of folds created over millions of years. Most of it is rocky, with layered-stone schist on top and under the topsoil. There are areas with more clay in the southwest, around Les Aspres. And areas with more marl in the northwestern Valle de l’Agly as well as in a swath around the city of Maury. The land tends to be hilly, with some extreme slopes, so many areas have been terraced to grow grapevines for thousands of years. Currently, Roussillon has 2,200 small growers, 25 cooperatives and 345 private wineries.
Generally, Roussillon is a fairly dry area, with rainfall averaging 500-600mm (around 20-24 inches) per year, which falls mainly in autumn. In summer, the mild weather in coastal towns along the Mediterranean attracts countless thousands of families for beachside holidays.
Roussillon boasts the sunniest weather of all of France. However, wind is quite a prevalent climactic feature here, and the winds are extremely intense at times. It is such an integral part of Roussillon that, historically, many winds have been given their own names. The most important is called Tramontana here (aka Tramontane). At its best, the Tramontana keeps the vineyards dry and prevents problems with humidity that might otherwise plague vines grown near the sea. At its worst, especially in the colder months, the Tramontana can savagely whip through both towns and countryside at 90km/hr (60 mph) day and night, creating a constant sensation of much lower temperatures. During these times one can almost feel the vines hunkering down and steeling themselves to outlast the ferocious gales, yet one more time, just like the people are doing.
CLASSIFICATIONS AND GRAPES
Basically, there are five AOP fortified sweet wines (though each can be made in a variety of styles): Banyuls, Banyuls Grand Cru, Maury, Muscat de Rivesaltes and Rivesaltes.
Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury were the first designated appellation wines in Roussillon, when the AOC system was new, in 1936. Formerly known as AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), the present term is AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée). Also receiving protected designation status, Muscat de Rivesaltes followed in 1956, Banyuls Grand Cru in 1962, Rivesaltes Ambré and Tuilé in 1997, Rivesaltes Grenat in 2002, and in 2011 AOP Rivesaltes Rosé along with a technical style reorganization for the different types of AOP Maury Doux [sweet Maury].
(Producers only began to make larger quantities of dry wines for sale during the latter part of the 20th century so the dry wines received their protected designations later, starting in 1971.)
Many of the grapes that feature in Roussillon’s AOP sweet wines are familiar to consumers of wines from the Rhone and from Provence. The red grapes used are Black Carignan, Black Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault. For sweet white AOP wines, there is White Carignan, White Grenache, Macabeu (aka Macabeo), Tourbat (aka Malvoisie du Roussillon), Muscat à petit grains, Muscat d’Alexandre and Grey Grenache.
COLORS AND FLAVORS
Most VDNS are well aged, and will also age quite a long time in the bottle (unopened). There are a few exceptions to the ageing of the wines. One of the Banyuls styles is made to be consumed early; it is called Rimage and it is fortified and produced so the dark red berry flavors of Black Grenache grapes are still bright in the wine.
Muscats de Rivesaltes are white wines, made with both types of muscat grapes. Some of these wines can be released early, notably one called “Muscat de Noël” which is specifically crafted to be enjoyed at Christmastime (late December)following the harvest. In general, the Muscat de Rivesaltes wines retain aromas of rose petals and fresh grapes; their color is light yellow-gold, and the wines deepen with age as the years go by.
The other Rivesaltes wines, and the Banyuls and Maury VDNs can be made in different styles; some are made with red grapes and others with white grapes. The aged wines are named for their colors: ambré (amber), grenat (garnet) and tuilé (the orange-clay color of local roof tiles). In addition to the requirements for the grapes, the vineyard areas and the winemaking techniques, each style of each AOP wine has its own ageing requirement, often a minimum of 30 months. The oldest wines are called Hors d’Age; they are aged more than five years – and often many years longer. Because of the unique ways they are produced and aged, these wines can retain their stimulating scents and tastes for five, ten, twenty, thirty or even fifty years.
Some of the wines retain color because they are aged mainly in non-oxydative environments -- often in giant demijohn bottles called bonbonnes, which are placed outside for years, under sun and rain, in heat and cold. It is quite astounding to tour a winery and come across a stand of brightly-topped jars out in a field, or lined up on top of an unshaded balcony, or placed casually on a set of wooden shelves outside the front door.
Other wines are aged in oxidative environments in a variety of casks for some or all of the ageing time. These wines are traditionally aged in uninsulated rooms, in warehouses or cellars or attics of wineries, where they also experience the four seasons of temperature and humidity during their ageing.
Both from the grapes and from their ageing processes, these aged, fortified wines develop lovely, distinctive aromas and flavors, some of which are intense and reminiscent of the past: elements of baking spices, coffee, mocha, caramel, citrus, berry jams and preserves, fruit syrups, and dried fruits like currants, figs and apricots.
Once opened, a bottle will last for at least three weeks, especially if they are refrigerated – and sometimes much longer. Serve the wines at a slightly cool temperature, ideally under 20 degrees C. Lately I have been enjoying a glass of VDN after a meal in winter. Or with a tonic mixer in the heat of the summer, as an aperitif.
The article is published in Fine Wine and Liquor, Issue No. 101